Pneumatic systems are an apparatus that allows for the transmission and control of energy through the use of sealed, compressed air. They function similarly to hydraulic systems, using air in lieu of water. In regards to aircraft, pneumatic systems often aid with processes such as cabin pressurization, air conditioning, initiating main engines, pressurizing fuel tanks, and much more. While these systems have long served a multitude of commercial aircraft, new electric technology has begun to emerge, changing the playing field.
For a majority of aircraft, compressed air for pneumatic systems is sourced from bleed air and ram air intakes, diverting some air for other various functions. With the advent of electric systems, compressors can be powered through generators rather than air. Because of this, while older planes could generate around 250 kW of energy on average, aircraft featuring electric power such as the Boeing 787 can produce upwards of 1,500 kW.
This change to utilizing electricity is not entirely recent, as electro-pneumatic systems have been present in select commercial airliners since the 1990’s. Their partial implementation rather than full is due for a variety of reasons, such as balancing efficiency, cost, weight, and other factors. As electric power relies on generators, a bigger generator is needed as more systems begin to rely on it. Until electric technology and ability greatly improves, the heavy weight and high cost of fully electric systems for aircraft will remain a hurdle for airliners and manufacturers to overcome.
Because of this, the transfer from pneumatic systems to fully electric systems may take time. Currently, multiple aviation manufacturers and investors have been heavily interested in hybrid aircraft. This means having aircraft that feature a hybrid electric powertrain. With hybrid planes, the transition from pneumatic to electric may be easier as the technology develops.
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